How Soccer Culture Made Its Way Into Brazil’s Political Crisis

The last few years have not been kind to Brazil, either on or off the pitch. The brief shoots of optimism that sprouted after 2013’s stirring Confederations Cup win have long since faded following the harrowing 7-1 defeat against Germany in the World Cup semifinal, last year’s miserable Copa América showing in Chile, and the generally gruesome standard of play served up since Dunga was appointed coach almost two years ago.

Things have not been much better for Brazil as a nation – the waves of positivity that surrounded its boom years of the last decade are now a quickly fading memory.

The economy is currently in freefall, with the country suffering through its worst recession in (at least) 25 years, political corruption is as rampant as ever, and President Dilma Rousseff seems almost certain to be suspended from her duties in the coming weeks as impeachment proceedings against her continue. As the situation deteriorates, the mood between pro- and contra-government camps is growing more and more toxic by the day.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that Brazil’s footballing and political meltdown have come at the same time. While there is no causal link between one and the other – many of Brazil’s best-loved teams of the past, such as the World Cup sides of 1970 and 1982, came when the country suffered under a suffocating military dictatorship – the parallels and connections between soccer and politics are everywhere at the moment.

The canary yellow shirts of the Seleção, for example, made famous by Pelé and Garrincha and Zico and Ronaldo and Ronaldinho and many more, have been appropriated as a badge of national pride and patriotism by protestors at the large-scale anti-government rallies that have taken place across the country in recent months.

The purity of such symbolism is only slightly stained by the fact that the shirt bears the crest of the Brazilian Football Association, the CBF, an organization long associated with corruption.

Well over 50 percent of Brazilian members of congress have been accused of serious crimes.

The ongoing U.S. Justice Department investigation into wrongdoing within soccer has shone a bright spotlight on the shenanigans of the last three CBF bosses. Last president Jose María Marin is currently under house arrest in New York, while his notorious predecessor Ricardo Teixeira, who was revealed to have taken millions in bribes from the ISL sports marketing company in the 1990s, is also currently being investigated by the FBI.

Current CBF boss Marco Polo del Nero, meanwhile, is thought to be “co-conspirator 12.” The FBI claims he took bribes in commercial deals surrounding the domestic Copa do Brasil tournament. Also concerned about a possible arrest, he has not left Brazil since the first round of FIFA arrests in May.

Perhaps such scandals within Brazilian soccer should not come as much of a surprise, for they merely reflect the corruption that runs rife through the Brazilian political system – according to The New York Times and the Transparency Brazil monitoring group, well over 50 percent of Brazilian members of congress have been accused of serious crimes such as money laundering, racketeering, kidnap, illegal deforestation, and even murder, while an ongoing police investigation into state run oil company Petrobras has uncovered a billion-dollar bribes racket.

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The connections between soccer and political and financial corruption do not stop there. The Arena Corinthians, home of the São Paulo club of the same name and the venue for the opening match of the 2014 World Cup, was recently cited in the Petrobras corruption investigation in relation to a potential money-laundering operation.

Brazilian soccer and politics occasionally find themselves in even darker territory than corruption.

And just last week, a court ordered the unsealing of the financial records of a senator and congressman from the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte suspected of involvement in a corruption and money-laundering scheme surrounding the construction of the Arena das Dunas stadium in Natal, where both Mexico and the USA played World Cup games in 2014.

Given that a number of the engineering companies cited in Operation Car Wash – as the Petrobras corruption investigation is known – also participated in World Cup stadium building, it would not be surprising if similar shady practices surrounded a number of the tournament’s other stadiums.

As devastating as the effects of such swindles can be on a country’s economy, however, Brazilian soccer and politics occasionally find themselves in even darker territory than corruption. That was the case during the recent congressional impeachment vote, when controversial right-wing congressman Jair Bolsonaro, who once said he’d rather have a dead son than a gay son, told a congresswoman that he wouldn’t rape her because she wasn’t worth it. He dedicated his vote to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the man who ran Brazil’s main torture and interrogation center during the military dictatorship – where Rousseff herself was tortured. “The Terror of Dilma,” Bolsonaro added, with a smirk.

The dictatorship can still cast a shadow over Brazilian soccer, too. Before the 2014 World Cup former Seleção legend Romario and Ivo Herzog, son of the journalist Vladimir Herzog, who was arrested and killed under the regime, produced a 54,000-strong petition calling for the removal of the aforementioned Jose Maria Marin as CBF boss.

In 1975, Marin, then a São Paulo state assemblyman, had called for action to be taken against the opposition, TV Cultura station, where Herzog was editor. A year later, Marin praised the work of notorious police chief and dictatorship henchman, Sérgio Fleury, accused of operating a death squad during the regime.

The current bitter political divide in the country is often described as a “Fla-Flu.”

The murky worlds of Brazilian soccer and politics are intertwined in language, too. It is not hard to go far without soccer metaphors in Brazil – the current bitter political divide in the country is often described as a “Fla-Flu,” a reference to the great Rio de Janeiro rivals Flamengo and Fluminense.

Sports writer Juca Kfouri – a soccer/politics metaphor himself, in that he comments and analyzes both with the same insight and clarity of thought – recently used a soccer comparison to decry the impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff, which he described as “sending a player off for a foul throw-in.”

Brazilian soccer’s “sore loser” culture, too, has recently emerged in the political sphere. In recent years, footballing promotion and relegation disputes have regularly ended in legal imbroglios. Just last season, midwestern club Goiás attempted to escape relegation from Serie A through the courts – while teams often threaten to appeal the results of matches based on what they perceive as refereeing bias or incompetence.

Similarly, following its defeat in the 2014 presidential elections, the PSDB party immediately declared that it had been the victim of electoral fraud, and demanded investigations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, its bid was unsuccessful.

The most significant comparison between soccer and politics, however, may be the way in which the campaign to remove President Rousseff itself is imbued with the same impatience that runs through Brazil’s soccer culture, where, according to a report in the Mexican publication El Economista in 2014, coaches last just 15 games on average.

“It’s just like soccer,” I was told by a fan in the northeastern city of Recife last year, when carrying out interviews for an article on Brazil’s economic downturn. “If the coach isn’t working, you sack him. If the president isn’t working, you get rid of her.”

Such thinking explains a lot of the current woes of Brazilian soccer, where, with little time to coach or experiment, promising young managers are an endangered species – something that also explains why the uninspiring, unpopular Dunga has been handed a second spell as the country’s current national coach.

Similarly, whatever your political allegiance, the eagerness to quickly remove Rousseff, rather than wait for the next presidential elections in 2018, has embroiled Brazil in political turmoil that seems certain to drag on for months, if not years.

In the meantime, there is not much ordinary Brazilians can do except wait and see how long it will take for either their country’s political system, or its soccer, to improve.